The word "Yona" in the Pali language, and the analogues "Yavana" in Sanskrit, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil; and "Jôbon" in Bengali, are words used in ancient India to designate Greek speakers. "Yona" and "Yavana" are both transliterations of the Greek word for "Ionians" (Homeric Greek: Iaones, Ancient Greek: *Iawones), who were probably the first Greeks to be known in the East.
The Yavanas are mentioned in the Buddhist discourse of the Middle Length Sayings, in which the Buddha mentions to the Brahman Assalayana the existence of the Kamboja and Yavana people who have only two castes, master or slave. The direct identification of the word "Yavana" with the Greeks at such an early time (6th-5th century BCE) can be doubted.
Examples of direct association of these with the Greeks include:
- The mention of the "Yona king Antiochus" in the Edicts of Ashoka (280 BCE)
- The mention of the "Yona king Antialcidas" in the Heliodorus pillar in Vidisha (110 BCE)
- King Menander and his bodyguard of "500 Yonas" in the Milinda Panha.
- The description of Greek astrology and Greek terminology in the Yavanajataka ("Sayings of the Yavanas") (150 CE).
- The mention of "Alexandria, the city of the Yonas" in the Mahavamsa, Chapter 29 (4th century CE).
Old World usage
This usage was shared by many of the countries east of Greece, from the Mediterranean to India:
- Egyptians used the word j-w-n(-n)-’.
- Assyrians used the word Iawanu.
- Persians used the word Yauna or Yavanu.
- Indians used the word Yavana in Mahabharata and other historic texts.
- Sri Lankans used the word Yona in Mahawamsa and other historic texts.
- In Ancient Hebrew writings the word was Yāvān (and still is, in modern Israeli Hebrew: יוון)
- In Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Urdu it is Yunan.
In Indian sources, the usage of the words "Yona", "Yauna", "Yonaka", "Yavana" or "Javana" etc. appears repeatedly, and particularly in relation to the Greek kingdoms which neighboured or sometimes occupied the Indian north-western territories (which is now Afghanistan or part of Pakistan) over a period of several centuries from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD, such as the Seleucid Empire, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and the Indo-Greek kingdom. The Yavanas are mentioned in detail in Sangam literature epics such as Paṭṭiṉappālai, describing their brisk trade with the Cholas in Tamilakam.
After Alexander's invasion, the Greek settlements had existed in eastern parts of Achaemenid empire, north-west of India, as neighbors to the Iranian Kambojas. The references to the Yonas in the early Buddhist texts may be related to the same.
Role in Buddhism
Edicts of Ashoka (250 BC)
Some of the better-known examples are those of the Edicts of Ashoka (c. 250 BC), in which the Buddhist emperor Ashoka refers to the Greek populations under his rule. Rock Edicts V and XIII mention the Yonas (or the Greeks) along with the Kambojas and Gandharas as a subject people forming a frontier region of his empire and attest that he sent envoys to the Greek rulers in the West as far as the Mediterranean, faultlessly naming them one by one. In the Gandhari original of Rock XIII, the Greek kings to the West are associated unambiguously with the term "Yona": Antiochus is referred as "Amtiyoko nama Yona-raja" (lit. "The Greek king by the name of Antiochus"), beyond whom live the four other kings: "param ca tena Atiyokena cature 4 rajani Turamaye nama Amtikini nama Maka nama Alikasudaro nama" (lit. "And beyond Antiochus, four kings by the name of Ptolemy, the name of Antigonos, the name of Magas, the name Alexander").
Dipavamsa and Sasanvamsa
Other Buddhist texts such as the Dipavamsa and the Sasanavamsa reveal that after the Third Buddhist Council, the elder (thera) Mahárakkhita was sent to the Yona country and he preached Dharma among the Yonas and the Kambojas, and that at the same time the Yona elder (thera) Dharmaraksita was sent to the country of Aparantaka in western India also. Ashoka's Rock Edict XIII also pairs the Yonas with the Kambojas (Yonakambojesu) and conveys that the Brahmanas and Sramanas are found everywhere in his empire except in the lands of the Yonas and the Kambojas.
The Mahawamsa or Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka refers to the thera Mahárakkhita being sent to preach to the Yona country, and also to the Yona thera Dhammarakkhita, who was sent to Aparanta (the "Western Ends"). It also mentions that king Pandukabhaya set aside a part of the city of Anuradhapura for the Yonas. Another Yona thera, Mahádhammarakkhita, is mentioned as having come from Alexandria in the country of the Yonas, to be present at the building of the Ruwanweliseya.
Another example is that of the Milinda Panha (Chapter I), where "Yonaka" is used to refer to the great Indo-Greek king Menander (160–135 BC), and to the guard of "five hundred Greeks" that constantly accompanies him.
Invasion of India
The Vanaparava of Mahabharata contains verses in the form of prophecy complaining that "... Mleccha (barbaric) kings of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Bahlikas etc. shall rule the earth (i.e India) un-righteously in Kaliyuga ...". This reference apparently alludes to chaotic political scenario following the collapse of Mauryan and Sunga dynasties in northern India and its subsequent occupation by foreign hordes of the Yavanas, Kambojas, Sakas and Pahlavas etc.
There are important references to the warring Mleccha hordes of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas etc. in the Bala Kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana.
Indologists like Dr H. C. Raychadhury, Dr B. C. Law, Dr Satya Shrava and others see in these verses the clear glimpses of the struggles of the Hindus with the mixed invading hordes of the barbaric Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas etc. from north-west. The time frame for these struggles is 2nd century BCE downwards. Dr Raychadhury fixes the date of the present version of the Valmiki Ramayana around/after 2nd century CE.
The other Indian records describe the 180 BCE Yavana attacks on Saketa, Panchala, Mathura and Pataliputra, probably against the Sunga empire, and possibly in defense of Buddhism. The main mentions of the invasion are those by Patanjali around 150 BCE, and of the Yuga Purana, which, like the Mahabharata, also describes Indian historical events in the form of a prophecy:
- "After having conquered Saketa, the country of the Panchala and the Mathuras, the Yavanas, wicked and valiant, will reach Kusumadhvaja ("The town of the flower-standard", Pataliputra). The thick mud-fortifications at Pataliputra being reached, all the provinces will be in disorder, without doubt. Ultimately, a great battle will follow, with tree-like engines (siege engines)."
- "The Yavanas (Greeks) will command, the Kings will disappear. (But ultimately) the Yavanas, intoxicated with fighting, will not stay in Madhadesa (the Middle Country); there will be undoubtedly a civil war among them, arising in their own country (Bactria), there will be a terrible and ferocious war."
The Anushasanaparava of Mahabharata affirms that the country of Mathura, the heartland of India, was under the joint military control of the Yavanas and the Kambojas.
From the references noted above, it appears certain that the Yavana invasion of Majjhimadesa (Mid India) was jointly carried out by the Yavanas and the Kambojas. The Greek Yavanas were apparently a minority foreigners in India and naturally may have obtained, in this invasion, the military support of their good neighbors, the warlike Kambojas. The evidence from the Mathura Lion Capital inscriptions of Saka great Satrap (Mahakshatrapa) Rajuvula also lends strong credibility to this view.
The Mid India invasion was followed by almost two centuries of Yavana rule which in the light of evidence presented above, appears to have been a joint Yavana-Kamboja rule.
On the 110 BCE Heliodorus pillar in Vidisha in Central India, the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas, who had sent an ambassador to the court of the Sunga king Bhagabhadra, was also qualified as "Yona".
The Mahavamsa also attests Yona settlement in Anuradhapura in ancient Sri Lanka, probably contributing to trade between East and West.
Buddhist texts like Sumangala Vilasini class the language of the Yavanas with the Milakkhabhasa i.e. impure language.
The Yonas and other northwestern invaders in Indian literature
The Yavanas or Yonas are frequently found listed with the Kambojas, Sakas, Pahlavas and other northwestern tribes in numerous ancient Indian texts.
The Mahabharata groups the Yavanas with the Kambojas and the Chinas and calls them "Mlechchas" (Barbarians). In the Shanti Parva section, the Yavanas are grouped with the Kambojas, Kiratas, Sakas, and the Pahlavas etc. and are spoken of as living the life of Dasyus (slaves). In another chapter of the same Parva, the Yaunas, Kambojas, Gandharas etc. are spoken of as equal to the "Svapakas" and the "Grddhras".
Udyogaparva of Mahabharata says that the composite army of the Kambojas, Yavanas and Sakas had participated in the Mahabharata war under the supreme command of Kamboja king Sudakshina. The epic numerously applauds this composite army as being very fierce and wrathful.
Balakanda of Ramayana also groups the Yavanas with the Kambojas, Sakas, Pahlavas etc. and refers to them as the military allies of sage Vishistha against Vedic king Vishwamitra The Kishkindha Kanda of Ramayana locates the Sakas, Kambojas, Yavanas and Paradas in the extreme north-west beyond the Himavat (i.e. Hindukush).
The Buddhist drama Mudrarakshasa by Visakhadutta as well as the Jaina works Parisishtaparvan refer to Chandragupta's alliance with Himalayan king Parvataka. This Himalayan alliance gave Chandragupta a powerful composite army made up of the frontier martial tribes of the Shakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Parasikas, Bahlikas etc. which he utilised to defeat the Greek successors of Alexander the Great and the Nanda rulers of Magadha, and thus establishing his Mauryan Empire in northern India.
Manusmriti lists the Yavanas with the Kambojas, Sakas, Pahlavas, Paradas etc. and regards them as degraded Kshatriyas (members of the warrior cast). Anushasanaparva of Mahabharata also views the Yavanas, Kambojas, Shakas etc. in the same light. Patanjali's Mahabhashya) regards the Yavanas and Sakas as Anirvasita (pure) Shudras. Gautama-Dharmasutra regards the Yavanas or Greeks as having sprung from Shudra females and Kshatriya males.
The Assalayana Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya attests that in Yona and Kamboja nations, there were only two classes of people...Aryas and Dasas...the masters and slaves, and that the Arya could become Dasa and vice versa. The Vishnu Purana also indicates that the "Chaturvarna" or four class social system was absent in the lands of Kiratas in the East, and the Yavanas and Kambojas etc. in the West.
Numerous Puranic literature groups the Yavanas with the Sakas, Kambojas, Pahlavas and Paradas and refers to the peculiar hair styles of these people which were different from those of the Hindus. Ganapatha on Pāṇini attests that it was a practice among the Yavanas and the Kambojas to wear short-cropped hair (Kamboja-mundah Yavana-mundah).
Vartika of Katayayana informs us that the kings of the Shakas and the Yavanas, like those of the Kambojas, may also be addressed by their respective tribal names.
Brihatkathamanjari of Kshmendra informs us that king Vikramaditya had unburdened the sacred earth of the Barbarians like the Shakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Tusharas, Parasikas, Hunas etc. by annihilating these sinners completely.
The Brahmanda Purana refers to the horses born in Yavana country.
The Mahaniddesa speaks of Yona and Parama Yona, probably referring to Arachosia as the Yona and Bactria as the Parama Yona.
The terms "Yona", "Yonaka" or "Yavana" literally referred to the Greeks. However were termed as "Mlechas" probably due to the barbaric behaviour as invaders. Indian languages did not address the difference based on religion early on but after the arrival of Islam to the subcontinent, more than Mussalaman or Muslim, appellation Yavana along with Turuka, Turuska, Tajik, and Arab came to be used for invaders professing Islam as their religion.
The word Yona, or one of its derivatives, is still used by some languages to designate contemporary Greece, such as in Arabic (يونان), in Hebrew (יוון), in Turkish ("Yunanistan"), in modern Aramaic (Yawnoye ܝܘ̈ܢܝܐ), or the Pashto, Hindi, Urdu, Malay and Indonesian languages ("Yunani").
- Yavana Kingdom
- Names of the Greeks
- History of Buddhism
- "Yona" is also a common transliteration of the Hebrew form of the given name commonly given to both men and women, Jonah
- The shape of ancient thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian philosophies, by Thomas Mc Evilly (Allworth Press, New York 2002) ISBN 1-58115-203-5